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"I am the happiest man in the world: democracy has won," said former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk on the night of October 15th. He had good reasons to celebrate: his Civic Coalition received 30% of the votes, which, combined with the 14 points obtained by Third Way alliance and 8% by The Left, were enough to form a coalition government that puts an end to the eight years of Law and Justice (PiS) in power. It wasn’t just about a political party defeating another in an electoral process. Almost any statistic related to justice, freedom, discrimination, equality or gender policies from 2015 to this day explains why Tusk was not exaggerating when he said that it was not him, but democracy that won the elections.
PiS, the nationalist party that might well fit the much-maligned term "populist," was founded in 2001 by the Kaczyński twins, Lech and Jarosław. Four years later, they won their first elections: Jarosław became prime minister, while Lech, who died in a plane crash in 2010, became the head of state. However, the ruling coalition collapsed soon after. After the early elections in 2007, Donald Tusk became the new head of the government, a position he held until 2014 when he resigned to take over as President of the European Council.
The year 2015 was a turning point for Poland, but also for other countries in the European Union. Nearly one and a half million asylum seekers arrived in the Old Continent, the vast majority coming from Syria, but also from Pakistan, Iraq, and some African states. The continental bloc then established a quota system under which different members were meant to accept a certain number of refugees. PiS representatives promoted a discourse of hatred and prejudice against migrants, Islam, and the EU, which deeply influenced society. During those days, more than 70% of Poles opposed the entry of Muslims into the continent, the highest figure in the European Union.
Fueled by the crisis, PiS returned to power, this time as the first party in the nation’s history to democratically achieve an absolute majority in the Parliament. Beata Szydło became the head of the government, and the surviving Kaczyński remained the power behind the scenes: no public office, but a leader in the shadows. Andrzej Duda, the new president and a party member, then rejected the quotas agreed in Brussels, and his country did not accept the entrance of a single refugee.
With the Parliament and the Executive Branch under its control, PiS aimed to co-opt the judiciary: the party appointed five judges to the Constitutional Tribunal and modified legislation to enable them to assume their roles as soon as possible, although the same Court deemed it unconstitutional, and the President of the European Parliament described the actions of the Polish government as "characteristic of a coup d’état." This led to the invocation of Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty, which, following serious violations of the Rule of Law, implies the suspension of voting and representation for a member in the European Council.
This was the beginning of eight years in which relations between Warsaw and the EU deteriorated to the point that, when Tusk was reelected as the head of the European Council in 2017, Poland was the only one out of the 28 member states to vote against. The reference to a potential "Polexit," a local version of Brexit, became more common. In 2021, a Constitutional Tribunal already clearly influenced by the government ruled that parts of the Treaty of the European Union were incompatible with the local Constitution, which caused a new conflict with the bloc.
According to the V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, since 2015 and, more pronouncedly, since 2019, liberal democracy, equal democracy, academic freedom, access to justice, and accountability have declined in Poland, while clientelism has increased slightly. All of this led the same organization to consider Poland in 2020 as the country that has made the most progress toward autocracy in the last decade, surpassing Hungary, Turkey, Brazil, and Serbia.
Particularly noteworthy was the amendment to the Assembly Act of 2016, which gave priority to meetings organized by state and religious institutions, de facto limiting the right to assemble. The following year, a new law increased government control over the funding of civil society organizations.
Not long ago, in May, the government created a commission to investigate Russian political influence in the country since 2007, the year of Tusk’s inauguration. Initially, it did not seem like a bad idea, considering Moscow’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine. But the composition of the commission, just a few months before the elections and with the power to ban individuals from holding public office for a decade without judicial review, sparked criticism from the United States and the EU. External pressure forced the government to backpedal and announce that the commission would not be established before the elections and would, therefore, not interfere with the democratic process.
According to Reporters Without Borders, Poland went from 18th to 66th place in terms of press freedom between 2015 and 2022. The same Paris-based NGO talks about new legislation to restrict access for journalists in Poland, "arbitrary bans," "arbitrary and violent arrests," and "regular attacks" on "overly critical journalists" by government members. In 2021, during a visit to Warsaw, it declared a "state of emergency for press freedom" in the country after Parliament passed a law affecting TVN, the country’s main independent broadcasting media group, a staunch critic of PiS and owned by the American company Warner Bros. Discovery, Inc. Local and international pressure led President Duda to finally veto the law.
On the other hand, in 2019, a study by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), based in the United States, found that 48% of Poles held anti-Semitic attitudes. Four years earlier, before the assumption of Law and Justice, the percentage was 11 points lower. According to the Center for Public Opinion Research (CBOS, in Polish), aversion among Poles toward other populations, including Russians, Arabs, Gypsies, Germans, Chinese, French, and Hungarians, has also increased in recent years.
Poland has also become the worst country in the EU regarding rights of sexual minorities. Even self-proclaimed "LGBT-free" zones were created since 2019, covering a third of the country, particularly in the southeast. Drawing parallels with the "Judenfrei", areas free of Jews declared during World War II in regions occupied by Nazism, including Poland, is not difficult.
During the presidential campaign the following year, Duda claimed that the LGBT "ideology" is "even more destructive" than communism. The president was then reelected with overwhelming support from the eastern regions of the country, rural areas, and the poorest parts of the country, while the Civic Coalition candidate won in the west and major urban centers.
These geographical differences are not coincidental. Law and Justice exploited social, cultural, and economic divides to its advantage and increased levels of polarization between rural and urban areas, between national autonomy and continental unity, but above all, between Catholicism and secularism. PiS’s goal is not just about a nationalist logic of attributing exclusive responsibilities for any difficulty to Brussels or Moscow or anyone else who is not Polish, white, Catholic, and heterosexual. It is a logic that goes beyond that, transcending speeches associated with traditional far-right or extreme right-wing ideologies. Despite constant threats and a stance similar to that of Hungary’s Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party, PiS did not aim to leave the continental bloc but to transform it from within. It did not aim to set aside democracy but to make it something different. Something of their own, not "imposed" from Western centers of power. Orban calls it "illiberal democracy."
The doctrine of Poland as the "Christ of Nations," raised from the 16th century and especially popularized after the late 18th-century national partitions, was revived by PiS. Poland is the one suffering crucifixion, the pain of constant external attacks. Poland is the one that sacrificed itself from 1683 in its war against the Ottoman Empire to defend the Christian identity of all of Europe. Poland is the one that must now sacrifice itself to protect the continent from the alleged invasion of homosexuals, Muslims, and any other group or ideology that does not conform to the recognized Polish norm.
PiS members attempted to appropriate the national identity: they imposed a discursive strategy in which their members, their supporters, and no one else represented the Polish people. Anyone else was an enemy and had to be excluded. They promoted contempt for the different, delegitimized European unity. Isn’t that contempt and exclusion the so-called "populism"? Kaczyński’s supporters vigorously criticizes Vladimir Putin’s Russia, but they share more than they are willing to admit.
On October 15, PiS received the most votes but fell far short of forming a ruling coalition that would allow it to stay in power. The 74% voter turnout was an all-time record in democracy, with nearly 70% of those under 30 turning out to vote. It was a clear message from a young generation: against nationalist and exclusionary rhetoric, in favor of continental integration and the Rule of Law.
The new government to be formed in the coming months will have the task of reversing the democratic decline, which will not be easy. Duda has veto power and a mandate until 2025; PiS still has control over public institutions such as the Constitutional Tribunal and the National Council of the Judiciary, in addition to the state broadcaster TVP. And their discourse has deeply affected a generation of Poles.
But Tusk is right. Despite eight years of Law and Justice in Poland, democracy has won. And that is no small feat.